Reviewing the normalisation of religious appropriation

by Simphiwe Magolego


Religious appropriation is one of the hardest topics to discuss in mainstream media.

It is known to initiate major controversy, and breeds ground for questions such as “aren’t you being a little too sensitive?”, or statements such as “you only want to be black when it suits you”.


Cultural appropriation is a commonly discussed issue, but what about religious appropriation? Does this concept exist in the space we are in right now? Are we required to change these actions we see around us or do we simply continue turning a blind eye?


According to the English Oxford Living Dictionaries, religious appropriation is the “unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of religious customs, practices symbols etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society”.


When appropriation happens, the artefacts of the minority group is affected greatly. This is because they aren’t given the credit they deserve for the symbols, artefacts or practices that are stolen from them. The same idea applies to religious appropriation.


A publicised example of religious appropriation can be examined in the 2018 New York Met Gala, where Roman Catholic was the theme. This public display of celebrities wearing Catholic clothing as a fashion statement sparked outrage. With many critics arguing that it was “blasphemous” and “sacrilegious cosplay”.


Source: Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

[Caption: Rihanna dressed in an attire normally worn by the Pope at the 2018 New York Met gala.]


Although the Vatican approved this theme, Catholics were left feeling as though their religion and practices were reduced to simply being a fashion statement.


Furthermore, they also felt that this was mortifying because the same celebrities that wore all these religious symbols are the same celebrities that criticise Christianity and the Church in general.


Pop star Katy Perry is guilty of this: “I don’t believe in a heaven or hell or an old man sitting on a throne”. This was Katy’s response when asked about her religious beliefs. This example is a blatant criticism of the church; that she believes nothing exists.


Although we may think that religious appropriation can only happen in publicised spaces, this is not the case. As I walk through campus, I see people wearing gold crucifixes, flaunting Rastafarian colours or wearing T-Shirts with the David Star. This begs me to ask the question: do you know the meaning behind what you are wearing?


Many people already know the meaning behind the cross/crucifix. Christians use it to symbolise the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is an integral part of their beliefs.


Source: www.catholicfaithstore.com

[Caption: Mens crucifix necklace pendant.]


With the Rastafarian colours, they are not only the colours that make up the Rastafarian flag.


The order of the colours red, gold and green (yes, there is an order) account for the Rastafarian levity and tell a story of bloodshed that translates into hope and freedom.


The star of David, in the Judaism, alludes to the Biblical King David and his legendary “shield”.

Source: www.judaicaWebStore.com

In Rastafari, this star symbolises the descendant of Prophet Haile Selassie from King David.


As a Rastafarian who attends the Catholic church, seeing these symbols being reduced to R50 fashion items evokes a sense of disturbance and confusion within me.


I remember walking around campus seeing several people with dreadlocks and wearing the colours of my religion and automatically thinking they were Rastafarian (because this how we identify Rastas in Jamaica). Only to discover that this was not the case.


Source: Pinterest user Ink420

Additionally, I would go up to people wearing rosaries or the crucifix and ask where the nearest Catholic Church is. I shockingly received a “Yo, I don’t know, I’m not Catholic” response.


I cannot say that I would want everyone to stop wearing these symbols completely, as this would spark controversy and anger amongst many. Likewise, I do not expect people to dress in a certain way or should be outrightly prohibited from using any form of religious artefacts in their everyday clothing.


I understand that fashion is an evolving art and I, as an individual, cannot determine what one can and cannot wear.


However, I do believe religious appreciation should be introduced, analysed and discussed with the same tenacity and passion as cultural appropriation. This is defined as “using the elements of the religion while honouring the source that they came from”.


This would require some knowledge, a sense of understanding and respect for the artefacts or symbols used.


Religious appreciation would allow and ensure that those who identify with the religion rest in the comfort that they are being understood, and the person wearing the artefact can understand the significance behind what they are wearing.


In a space filled with varying religious beliefs, it is important that we remain mindful of the kinds of acts we commit that may or may not offend the next person.

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Rhodes University (UCKAR), Makhanda (Grahastown), Eastern Cape

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